Unlocking the Potential of the Next Generation

As an underrepresented minority in veterinary medicine, Niccole Bruno, DVM, founder of blendVET, knows how important it is for kids with the dream of being a veterinarian to have support. Her organization creates programming that intentionally provides exposure and representation for students in underserved communities.

By Niccole Bruno

blendVET’s Pathway Events Seek to Inspire Kids

From an early age, I knew I would need to work twice as hard to make myself “fit” into the veterinary world.

I was lucky to have plenty of encouragement and support from my mother, an educator who knew the importance of exposure and representation. She found opportunities for me and my sister to learn about veterinary medicine and encouraged me to attend Tuskegee University for my undergraduate studies.

My parents sacrificed homeownership, worked overtime, and held multiple jobs. Because of their dedication and belief in our dream of becoming veterinarians, my sister and I had financial support and access to the best schools, test preparatory courses, and unpaid shadowing experiences.

All of this allowed us both to be viable candidates to apply to veterinary school, get accepted, and become the veterinarians we are today. What my parents did was remove barriers for us—the same barriers that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students are challenged with daily.

This reason is why student pathway development has always been critical to me. As an underrepresented minority in veterinary medicine, I know how important it is for kids with the same dream to have the same type of support my parents gave me. Once I became a veterinarian, I knew my responsibility was paying it forward.

Creating a Pathway to Veterinary Medicine

As a practicing veterinarian in New York and Houston, two of the most diverse cities in the United States, I could still see the disparities in patient care due to language barriers and cultural differences. I was often the only doctor—and the only person of color—in the practice. I saw our disconnect with clients who were people of color directly impacting patient care and the veterinary–client–patient relationship.

I knew that we needed to diversify the next generation of veterinary professionals. And to do that, I knew that kids need to be able to see a path to becoming veterinarians. They also need support and resources to get there.

“I knew that we needed to diversify the next generation of veterinary professionals. And to do that, I knew that kids need to be able to see a path to becoming veterinarians.”

In my practice, I provided opportunities for students in all stages of the pathway to shadow me and gain experience. I participated in career days, mentorship programs, and panel discussions. I also mentored my younger sister, Jasmine, in veterinary medicine.

But I couldn’t build the pathway alone. It takes a village of parents, educators, veterinary stakeholders, leaders, and professionals to diversify veterinary medicine by helping students see this as a viable career option. That’s where blendVET comes in.

Pathway Events: Showing Students They Belong

Through my organization, blendVET, my colleagues and I create programming that intentionally provides exposure and representation for students in underserved communities. We intentionally seek diversity within our faculty, as it is vital for students to see representation.

Since 2022, we have hosted four pathway events that are a part of our program, “Believe and Belong in Veterinary Medicine.” We have worked with K-12 schools in underserved communities in Nashville, Orlando, Miami, St. Petersburg, and San Diego.

Jasmine Bruno, DVMJasmine Bruno, DVM, demonstrates suturing to students in the Surgery immersion station.

Our pathway programs allow students to experience different roles and specializations within veterinary medicine with a hands-on approach. Our immersion stations range from surgery, general medicine, and emergency medicine to clinical pathology, shelter medicine, and nutrition.

Students learn about different roles within veterinary medicine, including veterinary technology, grooming, industry roles (pharmaceutical and nutrition), and board-certified specialists, to see the wide range of career opportunities.

Helping Parents Believe in the Pathway

Raising a child to become a veterinarian truly takes a village. Part of our work is showing parents and educators that, despite the barriers faced, their students have the potential to become the next generation of veterinary professionals.

My mother kept my interest in veterinary medicine alive, even when I didn’t have mentorship or exposure opportunities. Leaning on this personal experience, I saw an opportunity to create a parent program in conjunction with our student program. This allows parents to recognize their role in supporting their students.

With blendVET, we are trying to help educate parents, teachers, and administrators on the next steps, showing them how to offer support so students can see this as a viable career option. Our parent programs are designed to show parents the different career options and journeys in veterinary medicine.

“It takes a village of parents, educators, veterinary stakeholders, leaders, and professionals to diversify veterinary medicine by helping students see this as a viable career option.”

We also offer help with college and scholarship applications, tell parents about local opportunities for veterinary care, and share success stories from the blendVET faculty. These parent sessions are held in person or virtually, and we offer resources in English and Spanish to help remove barriers.

Still, blendVET also relies on the veterinary community, locally and beyond, so students can know the allies equally committed to their success.

Working With the Community

Even once we have the students and parents on board, it still takes a legion of veterinary stakeholders, leaders, and professionals to do their part to help diversify veterinary medicine.

blendVET asks the local veterinary community to support our programs through sponsorship, donating supplies for our workstation, offering students shadowing experiences, and, ultimately, their first job.

Some of the programs that have allowed blendVET to incorporate a next step for students include:

  • Pawsibilities, a virtual mentorship platform for college students
  • Purdue University’s “This is How We Role” K–4th grade curriculum allows weekly touchpoints and educational support.
  • VetSetGo provides e-learning courses, books, a summer camp program, and an app that allows students to track their animal exposure hours for veterinary school applications.

AAHA Con 2023

Our most recent pathway event partnered with AAHA for their annual conference, AAHA Con 2023.

The program was hosted at Logan Memorial Educational Campus (LMEC), a K–12 school with a 95% Latino student population. Students from LMEC are not only from the San Diego community—there is also a population of students who commute daily from Mexico.

blendVET held classroom presentations for students in the second through fifth grades and immersion stations for 50 sixth-grade students. Over 200 students had the opportunity to participate in blendVET programming.

We worked with the San Diego Humane Society, Hills Pet Nutrition, and over 20 volunteers from various roles and organizations in veterinary medicine to deliver a successful day of programming at LMEC.

Following the student program at LMEC, we hosted a virtual parent meeting where parents could see highlights from our day and learn ways to support their students. We offered these sessions in both English and Spanish. While many students at the school have adapted to English as their first language, their parents were grateful for the opportunity to choose which session to attend.

“No two veterinary professionals share the same pathway, and those underrepresented in this profession have a unique story of adversity and triumph.”

No two veterinary professionals share the same pathway, and those underrepresented in this profession have a unique story of adversity and triumph. Many of the blendVET faculty are first-generation students, including Esmeralda Cano, DVM, and Mariacamila Garcia Estrella, DVM, MPH, who conducted our Spanish session.

They told parents the stories of their own pathways into veterinary medicine as immigrants and first-generation students, respectfully educating them about local and national opportunities for their students to consider.

The English session was hosted by myself and Natalia Gilbert, a current veterinary student at Western University and a native of the San Diego area. Natalia shared her experiences navigating veterinary medicine from a student perspective and the local opportunities she participated in.

The Impact of Creating Pathways to Veterinary Medicine

We continue to be encouraged by how impactful these events are for students, parents, educators, the veterinary community, and even our faculty and volunteers.

In addition to participating in the parent session, Natalia Gilbert, DVM candidate at Western University, class of 2025, served as a team captain for the sixth-grade students. She removed the communication barrier for one of her students, who preferred to speak Spanish exclusively due to her fluency in Spanish.

Student's hands holding a pet ratStudents at pathway events have the opportunity to learn about treating various species including exotic pets.

After she spent the day navigating through each station, Gilbert shared her experience with us:

“Volunteering for the blendVET event in San Diego was an impactful and profound experience because I was able to give back to my community in such a special way, representing my diverse background in veterinary medicine,” Gilbert said. “The opportunity to connect with students from backgrounds I can relate to economically, socially, and culturally is powerful because our example as volunteers who represent the people we serve is essential to being a tangible source of inspiration.

“Volunteering for events like these is the active act of planting a seed in these student’s hearts and minds that says: If this person in front of me today could reach their goal to pursue a career in veterinary medicine despite the circumstances they have had to face in life (lack of exposure to the field they want to pursue due to lack of support, lack of example in community/current circle/home/generational wealth, etc.), I can too. I can be who I want to be, even in adversity.”

The feedback that we have received from hosting these programs has been extremely gratifying. The students have expressed gratitude for our speaking with them; the hugs are bonuses. The parents are also grateful for the learning process, and it often reminds them of how they can be better pet parents.

Student measuring pet foodStudents at blendVET’s pathway events learn about proper feeding and nutrition.

During one of our parent sessions, one parent told us her son left his surgical gown on for an hour after being home. She mentioned they had been considering giving up two pets due to financial constraints. Following the blendVET event, her son pleaded with her to allow the pets to stay because they were part of the family.

At the end of the day, we sent the children home with a food sample and information on local veterinary care services opportunities. The parent expressed gratitude for the program—and mentioned that she intends to keep all four pets. This story resonated with me, as it reminded me of the impact of events like this on a micro and macro level.

Looking to the Future

As we continue to navigate our programming, we learn best practices to remove barriers for students and their families to participate in our events and create sustainability in their academic curriculum.

For 2024, blendVET has already committed to six programs nationwide. The experience of the human–pet bond is essential for all, despite socioeconomic barriers. That’s why we will look for opportunities to include veterinary services to improve access to veterinary care as we navigate each program. We thank our blendVET faculty, volunteers, and sponsors for their commitment to this vital work.

We look forward to planning the third annual blendVET event at AAHA Con 2024 in National Harbor, Maryland. Please follow www.blend.vet and @blend.vet on Instagram for more information about our student programming and future pathway events.

Niccole Bruno, DVM, is the CEO and founder of blendVET™, a veterinary hospital certification program in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Bruno hopes that blendVET™ can create a space for continued learning for individuals and teams in DEIB.

Art credits: ©AAHA/Robin Taylor

Photos courtesy of blendVET



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